San Pedro de Atacama

Our 3 day stay at the Tierra Atacama Hotel was "all inclusive" in the best possible definition of "all inclusive". Inclusive from excursions to pina coladas.

We organised our first excursion within 5 minutes of arriving in the hotel, and 5 minutes after that we were on our way to a sundowner trip to a salt lake. And in the evening a visit to an observatory. A meeting with the excursion organiser sorted our plans for the next two days

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Our dilemma had been where to stay in San Pedro. Tierra Atacama looks, indeed is, expensive, but they do offer you amazing value for money. The rooms are modern and comfortable. Ours looked towards the volcano, and had a sitting area outside. The bathroom has both an outside and an inside shower. I could not fault the bedroom

If you take, as we did, the all inclusive package, then meals, all drinks, and all excursions, are included. The food was good (the fact that choice was limited did not bother me), the house wines of an acceptable standard, and cocktails like Pisco Sour were first class. The service in the dining room was excellent, and the staff were well trained and very friendly

The range of excursions is enormous, I never counted them, but there must be around fifty different ones. You sit down with the organiser soon after you arrive, and agree a program of excursions. They will put on anything on the list. We fitted in six trips in the three days we were there

The only little contretemps we had was that we had booked an all day excursion as one of the options, and they omitted to tell us that the other five in the mini bus would be five business people from a group of ten staying in the hotel. I felt that the mix in the bus would be wrong, and that my wife and I would be like a couple of gooseberries. So I said we would skip the trip, and the hotel, after a bit of indecision, put on another trip for us. So they did sort the problem. As I said to the hotel, I did not expect a private trip, but I did expect to be told if there was an " odd" mix of fellow travellers

The outdoor pool was too cold to swim in comfortably - Chris managed a couple of swims, but I abstained. There is a smaller indoor pool which is almost too warm.

I walked into town. It is a long, and a bit dusty, hike of a couple of kms. To be truthful, there is not a lot to see in the town, but it is worth going in to see it anyway! I found the walk quite pleasant

In all three really nice days. We were booked three days, and I wish, retrospectively that we had booked four or even five nights. They certainly know how to look after you.

   

The sundowner trip starts with a brief visit to Toconao village where the historic church is the main attraction., and a walk round their irrigation system (similar to ones I have seen in the Alpuharas in Spain). Then on to the Salar, which was quite different to the flat white salars that we had previously seen. This was brown and very uneven and looked like a coral reef with the tide out.

Salar de Atacama is the largest salt flat in Chile. It is 55 km south of San Pedro de Atacama, is surrounded by mountains, and has no drainage outlets. In the east it is enclosed by the main chain of the Andes, while to the west lies a secondary mountain range of the Andes called Cordillera de Domeyko. Large volcanoes dominate the landscape, including the Licancabur, Acamarachi, Aguas Calientes and the Láscar. The last is one of the most active volcanoes in Chile.

The salt flat covers 3,000 km2, is about 100 km long and 80 km wide, which makes it the third largest in the world, after Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia and Salinas Grandes in Argentina. Its average elevation is about 2,300 m above sea level. The topography of the core portion of the salar exhibits a high level of roughness, the result of evaporation and ephemeral surface water, unlike most other salt flats, as for example the Salar de Uyuni, which is periodically covered with shallow water. Some areas of the salt flat form part of Los Flamencos National Reserve.

Salar de Atacama is the world's largest and purest active source of lithium, containing 27% of the world's lithium reserve base, and currently provides almost 30% of the world's lithium carbonate supply. High lithium concentration in its brine (2,700 parts per million), a high rate of evaporation (3,500 mm per year), and extremely low annual rainfall (<30 mm average per year) make Atacama's finished lithium carbonate easier and cheaper to produce than what could be produced in the neighbouring Salar de Uyuni, which is estimated to have half of the lithium reserves in the world. Salar de Atacama's evaporation rate is the highest in the lithium industry, followed by Puna de Atacama, Argentina (2,600 mm per year), and the Salar de Uyuni (1,300–1,700 mm per year).

The skies above the Atacama desert are some of the best in the whole world to observe the universe. The high altitude and dryness create a very good setting to see the constellations, stars, planets and galaxies. Ahlarkapin Observatory is a new astronomy excursion that gives you a chance to discover the southern skies while learning about its scientific and ancestral significance. First we observed the sky with the naked eye with the astronomer pointing out stars with a laser pointer. Then we went into the telescope room to observe planets like Mars and Saturn, as well as the Milky Way, and the Southern Cross.

Tierra Atacama developed this excursion in collaboration with the local Atacameñan César Anza, owner of the Ahlarkapin Observatory which in the local native language means “Brilliant Star”.

It was a good visit and well presented.

 

Another tour took in El Valle de la Muerte and El Valle de la Luna some 13 kilometres west of San Pedro de Atacama, in the Cordillera de la Sal. They have various stone and sand formations which have been carved by wind and water. The scenery is spectacular. The impressive range of colour and texture, looking somewhat similar to the surface of the moon. There are also dry lakes where the composition of salt gives a white covering layer to the area. It presents diverse saline outcrops which appear like man-made sculptures. There are also a great variety of caverns.

The valley is also considered one of the driest places on earth, as some areas have not received a single drop of rain in hundreds of years. A prototype for a Mars rover was tested there by scientists because of the valley's dry and forbidding terrains.

Perfectly Preserved Petroglyphs in Yerbas Buenas, a 45 minute drive from San Pedro de Atacama along both paved and dirt roads. The area is cared for by a park ranger (there is a small entrance fee), and you follow a well maintained trail and see more than a thousand prehistoric petroglyphs. The petroglyphs were created by the Atacameno people and date back approximately 10,000 years.

Following my contretemps with the hotel over the arrangements for our trip for this day, and the subsequent re-scheduling, Chris went off for a swim with a group going to a hot spring, and I walked into the small town of Atacama. You can come up with a number of adjectives to describe the town - "quaint", "touristy" . It was a pleasant stroll down the "main" street, unpaved and with a multitude of small shops selling tourist tat.

San Pedro de Atacama grew, over centuries, around an oasis in the Puna de Atacama, an arid high plateau. Its first inhabitants were the Atacameños, whose basketworks and ceramic pottery crafts still survive. It was part of Bolivia until taken by Chile during the War of the Pacific

In spite of the tourist presence, there are not too many touts, and the adobe buildings are a pleasure to look at. I liked Atacama

And our final trip was a "bird watching" one up high into the Andes. Whilst not really a birder myself, it was an interesting drive, with varied scenery and as well as birds, a few viscacha, llamas, and a particularly large Yareta (which really excited our driver and guide)

Our hire car for the onward journey was delivered in the late afternoon, and the next morning we loaded up our 4*4 can headed for the Argentinean border and Salta beyond

 

Holiday in Bolivia, Chile and Argentina